Share / Discuss

donkeys run through a field

Hee Haw

Miniature donkeys do not wear shoes. An extraneous tidbit, but significant should you ever own one.

They also love honeysuckle, can live up to 30 years, and in ancient Rome, may have been worshipped in a religion, onolatry.

These are facts at the fingertips of Martha Harrell Howard ’75, who has bred and raised hundreds of the enchanting, snack-size equines on her farmette, Elms Farm Miniature Donkeys, in Mason, Ohio.

“Miniature donkeys have this wonderful calm, trusting nature,” says Howard. “People fall in love with them.”

Howard’s devotion started with the purchase of nine donkeys in 1994 with a plan to start a farm business. (A neighbor’s large horses intimidated her three young children, so she looked for something closer to the ground.)

Martha and donkeys Pre-internet, Howard went for meandering drives along the country roads near her home until she spotted two mini donkeys in a pasture. She knocked on the door of the home and was told firmly they weren’t for sale, but the owner “knew someone.” Soon enough, a small herd of minis were nibbling grass in Howard’s pasture, and her interest in their behavior and conformation steadily moved to conscientious breeding.

“Modern science has gone to the laboratory approach, that everything can be learned by modern genetic analysis,” says Howard. “You can determine some things more quickly, but I think there is still a great deal to be learned by observing the entire life cycle of the plant or animal.”

Though she’ll never be without donkeys, the enterprise is winding down. She’s celebrating its swan song by painting oil portraits of her favorites, including Black Knight, Apple Blossom, and Miss Milano.

“Each of the donkeys has a different personality,” she says. “If I walk into a field, they follow me like I’m the Pied Piper.”

That loyalty is the trait she finds the most endearing.

“People who have horses know that they will come to you if you offer food, like carrots,” says Howard. “Once the food is gone, horses will head off to graze. Miniature donkeys will come up to you with no expectation that you will feed them. They are naturally curious—and alert about their world.”

Howard and her husband, Dowell, spend hours each day feeding, grooming, and generally doting on the tiny animals, which, fully grown, are about 30 inches, or the height of a table. They crave human contact, happily sashaying to rest their withers under your fingers until it’s impossible to resist scratching and patting them. A caveat: Highly social and herd-minded, they cannot live without at least one other donkey.

“If you pet them,” she says, “they will stay with you a long time. Bring people into a group of donkeys, and you will shortly have at least one donkey on each side of each person.”

Though they can get very pesky for treats.

“So,” she says, “I don’t feed treats.”

Ah, donkeys: Legendary star of manger stories, fables, fairy tales, children’s party games, and even the big screen. The hauler of supplies into canyons and out of gold mines. Owner of oversized ears (likely a cooling mechanism), squat legs, and those glorious teeth. A can-do partner, a trainable draft animal, who will—often begrudgingly—help out, but mostly just wants to simply be with you.

It’s no surprise that Howard takes orders from across the United States and as far away as Europe and Dubai for her adorable “jennies” and “jacks.”

“Through observation, study, and experience, I have a practical understanding of the needs of the animals, how to manage their care for optimal reproductive health and nutrition, and how certain traits show up in breeding crosses,” she says. She makes those decisions about breeding by studying the strengths and weaknesses of specific bloodlines.

Her expertise evolved, she says, because her herd was so large. During her busiest years, Howard and her husband had more than 100 donkeys.

“You can only evaluate the positive or negative traits of a specific donkey when you have seen at least 19 offspring, and watched them grow to maturity,” says Howard. “So I circled back to my original idea, studying animals. Studying any field in a comprehensive way is its own reward.”

Although interested in science at Swarthmore, Howard majored in English literature with a concentration in theater. (She struggled in her chemistry lab, she notes with a laugh, but never missed a theory question.)

The farm experience has amplified her respect for the hundreds of generations of people “who raised plants or animals, selecting for certain traits, to improve the breed.” For Howard, books on donkeys have been a research mainstay, but time with the donkeys helped hone her expertise in breeding them.

Although Howard’s donkeys are purchased as pets, donkeys are a working animal in most parts of the world.

“They have not been selected for traits other than toughness and docility, and can survive in some desperate conditions, often neglected or abused,” she says. “For many families in poor countries, owning a donkey can make a huge difference for survival.

“I think about this often,” she adds, “how fortunate I am to live in a country of great abundance, where we can indulge in things like breeding donkeys for hair or color traits, and the donkeys themselves, who live in lush pastures with few demands on them.”

These days, her donkey herd is down to about 20. In the mornings, if she’s much past 8 a.m. getting to the barn, Howard hears them braying.      

“I love to open a gate into a new field, and see how they gallop, kicking up their heels in excitement,” she says.

Just then, Miss Milano takes off running to an unseen spot on the far end of the pasture. Apple Blossom and Black Knight follow at high speed, heads up and tails flying.